The greatest gift a piano student can receive is the gift of independence. The ability to choose a song and learn it on your own opens possibilities for a lifetime of enjoyment at the piano. Learning to read piano sheet music is an important part of developing this freedom.
Reading music is one of the most satisfying experiences. The ability to read musical notes from a page and transform it into an expressive, moving piece of music is nothing short of magical. Fortunately, this skill is not difficult to learn. Anyone can learn to read music, if they spend a proper amount of time working on it.
Piano sheet music
The basics of reading music are really quite simple. Traditionally, music is notated on a series of five horizontal lines and four spaces. We call this collection of lines and spaces the staff.
The position of notes on the staff indicates their relative pitches. Notes that are higher up on the staff sound higher than notes that are lower down on the staff. You could almost think of it like an XY graph, where the X axis is time moving horizontally to the right (we read music from left to right) and the Y axis is pitch moving up and down vertically.
Keywords to know
We use a few different tools to orient ourselves on the staff. If we didn’t use these tools, the staff would essentially be useless. We would have no reference for which pitch corresponds to which line or space. These tools are like musical compasses and maps, they show us our reference position and which directions to go.
The first tool we will explore is called the treble clef. It looks like this:
Treble clef tells us where the note G is on the staff. By starting on the second line up from the bottom (we always count the lines and spaces from the bottom up), and looping up and around and then down again to form a sort of cross on the second line, we know that this note will be G. For this reason, treble clef is also known as G clef. It tells us the G will be on the second line of the staff.
From here, we can use our knowledge of the musical alphabet to figure out the rest of the notes. Each line or space will represent one move up or down in the musical alphabet. So, if we move up from G on the second line to the note on the second space, we will find A. If we move up from A to the third line, we will find B. If we move up from B, we will find C on the third space. If we move up from C, we will find D on the fourth line. If we move up from D, we will find E on the fourth space. And finally, if we move up from E, we will find F on the fifth and top line.
We can add additional lines above the staff to access more notes. We call these lines ledger lines, but we will not dive into that right now.
Learn the lines
When learning the notes on the staff, we commonly divide study into two parts: the notes on the lines and the notes on the spaces. Here you can see all the notes on the lines of treble clef:
Learn the spaces
And here you can see all the notes on the spaces:
It is common to use mnemonic devices to remember the lines and spaces of treble clef. Probably the most common mnemonic for the lines is Every Good Boy Does Fine, but you are welcome to make up your own if you desire. The most common mnemonic for the spaces is FACE, simply because the notes on the spaces of treble clef naturally spell the word FACE.
Treble clef practice
Now let’s practice using the mnemonic devices to read notes in treble clef. Here is your first example:
First, determine whether this note is on a space or a line. It is on a line. Now, use the mnemonic device to count up from the bottom. Every, Good, Boy, B, the note on the third line of treble clef is B. The more you practice this, the easier it will become. Eventually, you will not need to think about it, just like you do not need to think about what words these are. You just simply know them by looking at them.
Try another example:
Is this not on a line or space? It is on a space. Now, use FACE to count up. F – A – C – E, E, the note on the fourth space of the treble clef is E. Wonderful work!
The bass clef
We use one other tool to help us orient ourselves on the staff: the bass clef. The bass clef is used primarily for notes below middle C.
The bass clef is also known as F clef because it tells us where F is on the staff. The bass clef begins on the fourth line of the staff, loops up and around, and is complete with two dots on either side of the fourth line. All this decoration around the fourth line lets us know that this line is F, specifically the F below middle C.
We can use the same strategies we used with the treble clef to learn the rest of the notes in bass clef. The most common mnemonic we use in bass clef is probably Good Boys Do Fine Always, but again feel free to make up your own if it helps you to remember more efficiently. The most common mnemonic for the spaces of bass clef is probably All Cows Eat Grass.
Learn the lines and spaces
Check out the lines of bass clef here:
Check out the spaces of bass clef here:
Bass clef practice time
Now let’s use this new knowledge to practice the notes of the bass clef. Check out this example first:
Is this note on a space or line? This note is on a line. So let’s count from the bottom up, Good Boys Do Fine, F, the note on the fourth line of bass clef is F.
Try another example:
Is this note on a line or space? This note is on a space. Count up from the bottom All Cows, C, the note on the second space of bass clef is C. Excellent work!
The grand staff
When we combine these two clefs together, we call the combination the grand staff. The grand staff looks like this:
The grand staff is most commonly used to notate piano sheet music. This way, both the left and right hands are easily viewed. The grand staff covers a wide range of pitches, from the C two octaves below middle C (even lower with ledger lines) to the C two octaves above middle C (and higher if you want to go there).
The mystery of middle C
Middle C is called such because it lies in the middle of the grand staff like this:
How to read sheet music
At the start of learning to read sheet music, it is useful to learn a few ‘landmark’ music notes. This means that you can see a note and recognize it instantly in any context. The first landmark note you should start with is middle C.
Try to play middle C from the Skoove sight-reading course to learn your first landmark note. Listen carefully while you play to gain extra benefit from the Skoove app. As well as helping you to learn your first landmark note, the backing track supports the development of your ear and sense of pulse as you listen to the chord changes and rhythm. Of course, you should practice writing all these notes that you learn with some blank piano sheet music.
Reading Music by Intervals
Knowing your way around the piano without having to constantly look down is a valuable skill to develop. You can support this skill by learning to read intervals. An interval is the distance between any two notes. Recognizing intervals is a quick and practical way to learn how to read sheet music because your fingers respond to the shape of the music. By recognizing common shapes and patterns, you will not have to think as much, and will therefore speed up your processing time, making you a faster reader.
Use stepwise motion
First you will learn to play in stepwise motion, from one key to the next. From your ‘landmark’ middle C you will move up a step, repeat or move down a step. At this stage it is not necessary to know the names of the notes you are playing. You have the skills to work it out from your ‘landmark’ note.
Try it out on Musical Steps. The Skoove app will wait for you to play the right note, so you won’t need to look down. This means you are starting to develop your keyboard geography and ear for sheet music.
Jump to thirds
Once you can recognise basic intervals and feel comfortable moving by step, you can progress to reading skips. The Skoove app will help you place your hand in the correct position. After that, maintain focus on the score as you learn to read sheet music for piano and play by skips. In this exercise you will learn what it feels like to play the interval of a 3rd. 3rds are the primary building block for piano chords as well.
When learning how to read piano sheet music it is also useful to adopt some short cuts with the lines and spaces. The 4 notes on the spaces of the treble clef spell the word FACE from the bottom up. You can use this trick to find your first note in a piece of music and after that you can read music notes by interval.
In the bass clef, you can use a mnemonic to help you recall the notes in the spaces. The most common mnemonic is All Cows Eat Grass. Notice that in both the treble clef and bass clef, the mnemonics are read from low to high. This is because when you start to read more complicated sheet music, the most efficient way to do so is from low to high. By creating mnemonics from low to high, you also train the eye to move effectively over the sheet music.
Reading piano sheet music will also become easier if you can memorize the piano alphabet both forwards and backwards. Learning music notes backwards helps you identify notes which are lower than your landmark note. C, B, A, G, F, E, D.
General Skills which support reading piano sheet music
There are 3 other important skills which impact your speed and success when you learn to read piano music note names. They are rhythm, reading ahead, and playing in different positions on the keyboard. The pianist who recognises rhythm easily has more time to focus on notes and expression.
Reading ahead in music requires you to read the upcoming notes while still playing the current ones. It is common when reading text but takes a bit more practice and awareness when you learn to read piano music. Nevertheless, it is a great and powerful tool to help you read music and memorize the piano keys.
Playing in different positions ensures your fingers don’t link a particular music note to a specific finger. Most of the work so far has been in C position. Why not play Morning Awakening for a totally different hand position or try these finger positions exercises.
Why is reading music important?
Learning how to read music is a necessary skill if you want to engage with any sort of music theory work. If you don’t understand the notes on the staff, then you will not be able to work with scales, chords, or rhythms in musical notation. Of course, you can work with all these concepts outside of written music. But, learning how to read and write will only help to deepen your knowledge and understanding of music theory.
If you find yourself habitually looking at the keyboard image, try covering it to ensure you are training yourself to learn to read piano music.
All of these methods combine to help you learn to read efficiently in a short amount of time. For best results use them all and never underestimate the value of several short daily practice sessions.
Author of this blog post:
Roberta Wolff started piano lessons at the age of five and is still enjoying learning! Currently, she teaches piano pedagogy and performance pedagogy at post graduate level in the UK. Her other work includes running a private teaching practice for students of all ages and abilities and creating learning and practice resources. Roberta loves writing as a means to supporting others on their piano journey.